About a half-dozen people gather among the small, flat grave markers at Hills of Calvary Memorial Park on All Saints Day, under an open canopy of cloudy sky. Among them are a few local pastors, social workers, citizen supporters, and a singer, all standing in a small semicircle.
They are here to honor the dead. To honor a year of burying the dead together. Of standing witness to the final journeys of 105 Nashvillians who otherwise would have had no one to send them on their way. Jonell Mosser, a Nashvillian best known in the local club scene for her smokey blues stylings, offers up classic hymns a cappella — “In the Garden,” “Abide with Me,” her voice lifting over the cemetery on the breeze.
Participants read an ecumenical prayer, Psalm 139, a poem by Maya Angelou, a Prayer of Commendation/Ancestor’s Prayer. And, most importantly, there is the Roll Call of the Saints. The witnesses are here to call out each of those 105 names in remembrance as Pastor Jay Voorhees of Madison’s City Road Chapel rings a handbell, tolling out once for each person.
“This is a ministry of presence,” Voorhees says about the Call the Name project, which he helped found a little over a year ago along with other area pastors. It’s the same group holding the All Saints Day memorial. “We don’t always know the person we’re helping to bury, or anything about the circumstances of their life or death, only that they have no one to care for them on this part of the journey. So we say, ‘We are here for you to walk with you one last time.’ ”
This mission of Call the Name is simple: When a deceased person has no one to walk that last walk to the grave alongside them, a pastor and a few other folks will show up to Hills of Calvary, usually with just a day or two advance notice. Their task is to be present, to say thoughtful words or offer prayers, to call the deceased person’s name, and honor what might be a complete stranger’s life and passing. One might even put a hand on the casket for just a moment in quiet reflection and acknowledgement before the cemetery workers lower the remains into the waiting grave. It’s a small ceremony, and beautiful in its kindness.
“I am honored that Pastor Jay asked me to participate in this memorial,” Mosser says. “But for the grace of God, it could be any one of us who needs this kindness, and I’m grateful to have a chance to honor these people who really are our neighbors.”
Who are the people served by this mission? Some were living unhoused. Some died in hospitals, or in nursing homes, or at a place of residence. Some are infants and children. Some are people who died while incarcerated. Some were undocumented residents dying far away from home. The tragic common thread is that none of them had family or friends who were able to bury them, to stand graveside to say farewell.
These people are considered by Nashville Metropolitan Social Services to be “abandoned,” and their final needs are addressed by the city’s Indigent Burial Program. The gravesites at Hills of Calvary were donated to the city to serve as the final resting place for people who come into the program’s care. The city also provides a simple casket and vault and a grave marker. Metro doesn’t provide a ceremony, but they do let members of Call the Name know about upcoming burials for people designated as abandoned.
“We say, ‘We are here for you to walk with you one last time.’ ”
– Jay Voorhees
Voorhees was led to build the ministry when he went to Hills of Calvary in the summer of 2021 to say farewell to a friend who was being laid to rest through the Indigent Burial Program. “I came out expecting to find one gravesite open over here, and there were five. And there was no one present at any of those gravesites,” he says. This prompted him to invite other pastors and volunteers to join him in offering witness, to call the names of people arriving at Hills of Calvary through the Indigent
They began their efforts in November 2021 as Call the Name Nashville. In a year’s time the program has become a collaboration among faith leaders throughout the city. They represent diverse faith traditions but share the common mission to say the deceased’s name aloud one last time and to offer a short ritual of committal. It’s an all-volunteer group. “We always try to have between three to 10 people out here for burial,” Voorhees says.
Reverend Jeannie Alexander, executive director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, is one of those volunteers. “People themselves want to be remembered,” she says. “There are other cultures that respect ancestry and respect death and dying in a broader context, where burial sites are cared for and people show up to honor the dead, no matter who they were. We have so sanitized the funeral industry that we don’t know how to navigate death very well. And for some people who end up here, it was kind of out of sight, out of mind. They deserve remembrance, like any of us.”
And what if the person being buried is not known to be religious, or is known to be an atheist? “Our ceremonies are very simple, and the language clergy use is broad,” Voorhees explains. “It’s more about the simple act of remembrance. To acknowledge the person’s dignity as a human being. We believe every Nashvillian in death deserves to have someone to call their name.
To learn more about Call the Name and to volunteer, find them online at callthenamenashville.com